July 29, 2016

The lasting gift of a long journey: Six-year spiritual adventure results in farmer attending Mass in every parish in archdiocese

John Meisberger poses for a photo outside SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis, which was one of the churches that the 72-year-old southern Indiana farmer visited in his successful faith journey to attend Mass at every parish in the archdiocese. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

John Meisberger poses for a photo outside SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis, which was one of the churches that the 72-year-old southern Indiana farmer visited in his successful faith journey to attend Mass at every parish in the archdiocese. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The joy keeps returning to John Meisberger’s face as he shares the magical moments he experienced while traveling around central and southern Indiana to attend Mass at every parish in the archdiocese.

He laughs when he recalls the sign he passed on the way to St. Martin of Tours Church as he entered the small southern Indiana community of Siberia: “Cold in name, but warm in heart.”

He smiles at the time he arrived at St. Paul Catholic Center on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, believing he was attending an English-language Mass and instead became part of a Korean-language Mass.

“But it’s still the Mass,” says the 72-year-old, southern Indiana farmer. “I was able to follow along.”

And his face lights up when he talks about the experience that he and his wife Diane had after they made a 2 1/2 hour drive to attend the Saturday evening vigil Mass at Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis.

“It was held in the school cafeteria,” he says. “Father Kenneth Taylor had his altar set up on a table. At the end of the Mass, a woman made an announcement and asked, ‘Do we have any visitors with us?’

“We stood up, and I told them who we are and what we’re doing. They thought that was something, and they applauded for us. After Mass, everyone was asking us about what we were doing. They were a very welcoming parish.”

‘Once I got started, I couldn’t quit’

When Meisberger entered the last church on his list earlier this year, it marked the end of a more than six-year spiritual adventure that began in October of 2009. That’s when he had the idea for his unique journey of faith as he attended Mass at his then-home parish of St. Mary Magdalen in New Marion in the Batesville Deanery.

He had just finished another farming season, and had retired seven months earlier from his job of 44 years as an assembly worker. So he was looking for a new adventure.

“I like to travel, and I just had this idea that I’d like to see all these different churches,” says Meisberger, a father of two and a grandfather of four. “And once I got started, I couldn’t quit.”

At the time, there were 151 parishes in the archdiocese. He started with the churches in the Batesville Deanery, often attending three Masses in a weekend—one on Saturday evening and two on Sunday. But he soon altered that plan when he faced one reality about churches and collections.

“My number one rule is, ‘Don’t go “churching” at too many churches when there are two collections,’ ” he says with a laugh. “I’d give at both collections at a few places and by late Sunday, I didn’t have much to give.”

As he attended Mass at the different churches, Meisberger also remembered the wisdom that his favorite priest—the late Father Bernard Voges—shared with him.

“He said, ‘If you don’t hear babies cry in the church, the church is in trouble.’ He also said, ‘Every time you hear a baby cry in church, be thankful for two things: The mothers are having the babies, and they’re bringing them to church.’ ”

‘Where is the prettiest church?’

Meisberger’s wife of 47 years, Diane, accompanied him to the first 103 churches that they attended for Mass—until her knee replacement surgery and recovery prevented her from continuing.

Their travels—and the people they met—were a revelation for her.

“We’ve both been raised as country people all of our lives,” she says. “We live out in the country, and we’re in farming. When he told me he wanted to do this, I thought, ‘Oh my word!’ It was an eye-opener to see how alike we are, even when we were in the city.

“Our goals are the same—worshipping Christ and getting to heaven. It seemed the majority of people felt that way.”

She also felt uplifted by many of the priests they encountered during their travels.

“You felt the goodness of them,” she says. “Their holiness, their spirituality oozes out to you. They made you want to do more.”

Another emotional part of their spiritual adventure was making sure they attended Mass at parishes that were scheduled to be merged into other parishes as part of Connected in the Spirit, the planning process to restructure the archdiocese.

That became an emphasis for the Meisbergers, especially after St. Mary Magdalen Parish—where they were married in the parish church—was closed in 2013 during the archdiocese’s restructuring of the Batesville Deanery.

“When John knew a parish was going to close, he wanted to be there so he could talk to the people about it,” Diane says.

Now members of Prince of Peace Parish in Madison, the Meisbergers show their affection for their former parish in the answer that John gives to a question he was often asked in his travels.

“One of the questions I’d always get asked is, ‘Where is the prettiest church?’ ” he says with a smile. “That’s a question you can’t answer, or you’d get 150 parishes mad. For me, St. Mary Magdalen was the prettiest church because it was my home parish for most of my life.”

‘I had never seen anything like it’

It took Meisberger six years to complete his goal because he mostly pursued it during the winter months when he didn’t have his commitment to farming.

After starting in the Batesville Deanery, he methodically traveled through the deaneries of Seymour, Connersville, Terre Haute, Indianapolis North, Indianapolis West, Indianapolis East, Indianapolis South, Bloomington, New Albany and Tell City.

Besides his travels with his wife, his journeys gave him extra time with two other occasional travelers—his son Jason and his mother Gertrude before she died in 2012.

He also had the opportunity to meet Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis on a memorable day in the archdiocese.

“That was when Archbishop Tobin was installed [as the spiritual leader of the archdiocese on Dec. 3, 2012]” he recalls. “That was the big one. Just being in the cathedral, the ceremony, and there must have been 100 priests. I had never seen anything like it. I shook the hand of the archbishop after Mass.”

Moments like that one inspired him to continue to pursue his goal.

“The first 50 churches were easy and fun,” he says. “The last 50 were getting harder because they were farther from home. Sometimes we had to stay overnight, and some parishes only had one Mass.”

The lasting gift of a long journey

The fact that Meisberger kept pursuing his goal says everything anyone needs to know about his faith, notes his friend, Deacon Michael Gardner, who ministers at Prince of Peace Parish.

“John is the salt of the earth, and a very faithful man,” Deacon Gardner says. “John not only visited each church, he celebrated the Eucharist with every congregation. The Mass is our prayer that gathers together all God’s people and unites us as one body.

“John’s faithfulness reminds me of my favorite Mass dismissal: ‘Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.’ John does just that.”

Meisberger completed his goal by attending Mass at St. Meinrad Church in St. Meinrad, followed by another Mass at the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in St. Meinrad.

“It was a big relief to finish,” he says with another smile. He turns serious as he shares what he considers the lasting gift of his long journey.

“You get more of the universal feeling of the Church—whether you’re up at the cathedral or you’re down at a little parish like St. Martin of Tours in Siberia or St. Peter in Harrison County. It’s still the Mass wherever you go. And we’re all in this together.

“One thing is for sure: The Church in central and southern Indiana is alive and well.” †

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